The shame of Hayti reverberates through Lewis Shiner's new novel "Black & White," just as it still does through modern-day Durham.
Hayti, Durham's first and greatest black neighborhood, fell victim to economic disinvestment and to the urban renewal wrecking ball in the 1960s. As the Durham Freeway cut through the black-owned businesses on Pettigrew Street, the city bought and razed homes and businesses throughout the neighborhood, effectively killing one of the most prosperous centers of black culture and entrepreneurship in midcentury America.
Even today, echoes of Hayti can still be heard; just two months ago, at a Durham community meeting, community leaders invoked Hayti in explaining their mistrust of the current development boom in the Fayetteville Street corridor (www.newsobserver.com/978/story/1034364.html).
In "Black & White," Shiner -- a novelist and comics writer who lives in Raleigh -- tells the story of Hayti's fall from the perspective of the present, as Michael Cooper, a comics artist, returns to his parents' home in North Carolina to watch his father die. A multitude of secrets are revealed as Michael unravels the knotty history of his own birth -- which is tangled up with the sad story of Hayti's destruction. Michael's father, Robert, was once an engineer for the (fictional) firm of Mason and Antree, responsible for the construction of the Durham Freeway and the destruction of the Hayti buildings that stood in its way. In the world of "Black & White," secrets aren't the only things buried under that freeway embankment-- a real dead body is, too, the corpse of a long-disappeared civil rights leader.
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Given the novel's title, and its obvious racial and moral implications, it's worth answering a question prospective readers may have about this novel: Shiner is white. Some observers may take umbrage at a white man attempting to tell this story, but Shiner approaches his story honestly. Even while training its eye on one man's shocking family history, "Black & White" admirably takes in the big picture, and it's the rare book that pays attention to the machinery of change -- not only the backroom political dealings that doomed Hayti but the actual cranes and bulldozers that devoured it. The men who directed and drove those machines have stories to tell; that unique view of Hayti's destruction is a fascinating one, and one I'm glad Shiner chose to tell.
Shiner's overpacked mystery plot is somewhat less successful, alas, than his historical perspective. A whole lot happens in "Black & White." By the time the novel reaches the quarter-century mark, Michael has questioned relatives and his father's former co-worker; uncovered troubling inconsistencies in the story of his own birth; and learned the long-held secret of that civil rights leader buried under the Durham Freeway. And over the course of the novel's remaining 300-plus pages, Shiner packs in a bomb, a white supremacist rally, a race riot, voodoo ritual, a romance, an affair, a fight at a funeral, more murders, a suicide, a stolen baby, Southern politics, a savage beating, incest, a resurrection, and a character who moves from one side of the title's racial divide to another.
Whew! I could see a Richard Price juggling these events -- and their social significance -- and turning "Black & White" into a book for the ages. But Shiner's storytelling ambition exceeds his grasp, and the novel winds up feeling unfortunately overfull.
In the novel, Michael is a comics artist, working on a series for the real-life comics publisher Vertigo. Reading this exciting but overstuffed novel made me wish that Shiner had written it as a graphic novel. He has a knack for the kind of visually arresting set pieces -- the exhumation of a body from a highway embankment, a sexually charged voodoo ceremony -- that call out for graphic interpretation. The novel's somewhat overheated climax -- ticking bomb and all -- would play much better in a graphic novel, which more gracefully accommodates extremes of storytelling.
To stand at the intersection of Pettigrew and Fayetteville now is to stand in a wasteland of vacant lots and car parks, the Durham Freeway's noise drowning out any hint of the Hayti that once was. The only sign of the old neighborhood is the steeple of St. Joseph's Church across the freeway, now the home of the Hayti Heritage Center -- a steeple that plays a prominent role in "Black & White." So how about it, Vertigo? I'd love to see a talented visual artist bring Hayti to life in all its busy, workaday glory, to show us in living color what W.E.B. DuBois called "a city of Negro enterprises," a city exceptional not only in its shameful death but in its proud life.